Saint-Gobain

CEO John Crowe celebrated Saint-Gobain’s 350th anniversary with a new, state-of-the-art U.S. headquarters

By Samantha Drake
Photography by Mitro Hood and by Jeffrey Totaro
(courtesy of Saint-Gobain)

November/December issue

Read John Crowe’s cover story in our November/December issue

The buckets stationed in the lobby to catch water from the leaking roof on rainy days were a sure sign that Saint-Gobain and CertainTeed Corporations’ headquarters in Valley Forge, PA, had seen better days.

Employees joked that the buckets were the company’s “unintended water feature.” The aging structure was also no way to house the North American headquarters of one of the largest building materials companies in the world, much less show off the products it has to offer.

John Crowe, president and CEO of Saint-Gobain and CertainTeed Corporations, decided it was time for a new headquarters. He set about convincing the chairman and CEO of French parent Compagnie de Saint-Gobain, Pierre-André de Chalendar, whose only mandate to Crowe was to “do something iconic.”

The result is the new headquarters in Malvern, PA, known as the “Living Laboratory,” which incorporates more than 50 of Saint-Gobain and CertainTeed’s own products. Since opening in October 2015, the building is the most visible achievement of Crowe’s leadership.

Crowe, 62, is the first American to be named president and CEO of Saint-Gobain’s North American business, and is president and CEO of CertainTeed, the company’s largest North American subsidiary. He has held both positions since 2011 and has focused on growing the business by finding and developing the right talent, building relationships inside and outside the organization, and meeting the changing needs of the construction industry.

Under Crowe’s guidance, the North American businesses have earned a prominent and influential place in Saint-Gobain’s global organization, which marked its 350th anniversary in 2015 — an exceptional milestone by any standard.

Crowe’s leadership has meant stability and a sense of connection for the North American organization and beyond. “He’s one of the most credible people in the company,” says Carmen Ferrigno, vice president of communications at Saint-Gobain Corporation. “When you’ve got John Crowe on your side, you’ve got a huge advocate.”

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A COMPANY MAN

“I never thought I would be CEO,” says Crowe. “I never really had that ambition, honestly. I never looked much further than maybe the next job.”

Crowe grew up in Queens, NY, and northern New Jersey. After earning a Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering from Clarkson University in Potsdam, NY, and an MBA from Boston College, he started his career at Norton Co. as a process engineer for the materials business in 1978. He gained a broad understanding of the business, holding positions in engineering, financial management, business development, and marketing and sales. Saint-Gobain acquired Norton in 1990 and Crowe subsequently held general management positions in the company’s abrasives, advanced ceramics, crystals and performance plastics businesses. He served as president of Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics from 2002 to 2008 and of Saint-Gobain Abrasives from 2008 to 2011.

When Crowe became president and CEO of Saint-Gobain and CertainTeed’s North America businesses in 2011, he was also named Saint-Gobain’s general delegate for North America. In 2013, Crowe was promoted to senior vice president of Compagnie de Saint-Gobain and a member of Saint-Gobain’s World Management Committee, in addition to his other responsibilities.

He takes pride in being the first American entrusted to run Saint-Gobain in North America, which generates nearly 20 percent of the company’s operating profit worldwide. “I’ve worked a long time for this company. I’m a lifer,” says Crowe. “I’m committed to it. I know everybody, and to be asked to be responsible for the company in an important region felt good. I’ve always kept the company’s interests in mind to help [it] succeed.”

With his responsibilities comes a lot of travel; more than half of Crowe’s time is spent on the road. That includes bringing the North American perspective on the building industry to the management committee in Paris every few months.

ROYAL ROOTS

Headquartered in Paris and operating in 66 countries, Saint-Gobain has nearly 170,000 employees worldwide and more than $44 billion in sales in 2015, including $5.7 billion in North American sales.

The 351-year-old company was founded in 1665 as the Manufacture Royale des Glaces de Miroirs at the behest of King Louis XIV. The Sun King wanted to challenge the supremacy of Venice’s glassblowers and charged the new company with making 357 mirrors for the Hall of Mirrors at his Palace of Versailles. The Manufacture Royale later changed its name to Saint-Gobain after moving to a small town in northern France of the same name.

CertainTeed hasn’t been around quite as long, but still has a lengthy history by U.S. standards. Founded in 1904 as General Roofing Manufacturing Co., the company changed its name to CertainTeed Products Corp., a contraction of its slogan, “Quality Made Certain, Satisfaction Guaranteed.” In 1967, CertainTeed and the France-based Saint-Gobain launched a joint venture to manufacture and sell insulation in the U.S. Saint-Gobain acquired 57 percent of CertainTeed’s stock and a controlling interest in the company in 1976, and CertainTeed became a wholly owned subsidiary of Saint-Gobain in 1988.

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CertainTeed has more than 5,700 employees and over 65 manufacturing facilities throughout the U.S. and Canada, generating $3.3 billion in sales in 2015. Saint-Gobain has more than 14,000 employees and over 150 locations in North America, with approximately $5.7 billion in revenue in 2015.

Through acquisitions of numerous manufacturers, CertainTeed has become a leading brand for sustainable building products throughout North America, including roofing, siding, fence, railing, decking, insulation, suspended ceilings, drywall and finishing products.

The average person likely can’t name Saint-Gobain and CertainTeed’s products, but they are literally everywhere.

“We do a lot of basic installation and drywall and ceiling panels, but we also do a lot of very unique and specialized types of materials that are incorporated into more iconic and well-known buildings,” Crowe points out.

In Philadelphia, among other places, Saint-Gobain’s glass products are part of the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts Dorrance H. Hamilton Rooftop Garden and the Benjamin Franklin Museum, and CertainTeed roofing materials are on Boat House Row. Elsewhere, Saint-Gobain’s products can be found in the Statue of Liberty, the glass pyramid in front of the Louvre in Paris, and even in the Mars Rover.

INDUSTRY CHALLENGES

An ongoing challenge for Saint-Gobain and CertainTeed is handling fluctuations in the construction industry. The last decade has seen a huge drop in the amount of new housing being built in the U.S., for example. “It peaked probably back in 2007 or 2008, with 2 million housing starts in the U.S., and that dropped all the way down to about 500,000, so it’s been a huge contraction,” says Crowe.

To keep pace, Saint-Gobain and CertainTeed had to adjust manufacturing output and plant capacity, though a number of idled production lines were restarted as the economy improved.

Some decisions have been more difficult than others. Plans to close a siding plant in Joplin, MO, in 2011 were put on hold for nearly a year after a tornado ripped through the town in May, killing 158 people and causing billions of dollars in damage, Crowe notes. Prior to the plant’s closing in 2012, the organization offered support to employees losing their jobs through peer-to-peer donations from other sites, outplacement training and networking assistance, says Crowe.

At the same time, recruiting engineers for the organization’s research and development function is a concern. “There’s a shortage of engineering talent and these plants don’t run as well as they can run if you don’t have the requisite technical skills and support at the plants,” says Crowe. Employing a strong base of engineers is also necessary to help the organization realize its plans for the future, he says.

Saint-Gobain and CertainTeed actively recruit for diverse candidates through search companies, and through college fairs, internships and co-op programs. At the high school level, the organization is active in getting more young women interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers. Crowe notes that a research lab in Massachusetts is very active in working with high school students interested in STEM careers, who often return to work for the organization after college.

However, perhaps Crowe’s biggest challenge as the head of Saint-Gobain and CertainTeed is fostering an environment that encourages innovation in product development. One of his biggest priorities is to differentiate the Saint-Gobain and CertainTeed brands from the competition and continue to build on the organization’s reputation for its commitment to innovation. But that doesn’t happen overnight. “You just don’t turn the switch on. It’s a bit of a cultural thing and it takes time to build,” Crowe points out.

This involves making strategic decisions across the organization to determine how and where to invest resources, identify the skills necessary to fill key positions, and align research and development to focus on consumer and market trends, he says.

THE ‘LIVING LABORATORY’

One major engine (and manifestation) of innovation at Saint-Gobain and CertainTeed: the new U.S. headquarters, known as the “Living Laboratory” — a sustainable workplace that strives to maximize the comfort, health and productivity of employees. The 277,000-square-foot building houses more than 760 employees and includes 119,000 square feet of open-concept office spaces, 116 collaborative work spaces, a cafeteria along with other food and beverage spaces, a fitness facility, a natural pond, fountain installations and 1.3 miles of walking trails.

Crowe says the headquarters’ design has changed how employees work because barriers between groups are minimized, and the flexible configurations encourage collaboration and inspire creativity. “We went from offices to an open-office concept here. I don’t have an office,” he explains. “We wanted to get people out of their work areas to collaborate, and we have so many meeting places here. You can go outside and work.”

Employees say they feel more motivated by the environment and there’s been a corresponding increase in productivity since moving to the new building. “We haven’t hired any more people; they’re just more productive and more effective in what they do,” explains Crowe. Saint-Gobain and CertainTeed are working with the University of Oregon on a workplace productivity study to collect data to back up the idea that building conditions and office spaces have a measurable impact on employees. “If employees feel good and they’re healthier, then they’re more motivated and productive. It’s good business,” he says. And it’s good for the Saint-Gobain and CertainTeed brands, as well.

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Pamela Schechter, president of CertainTeed Siding, who joined the company in 2013, points out that Crowe was a big proponent of the open-concept office from the beginning. Both were part of the management team that toured a variety of other facilities’ layouts before deciding on the open-office idea.

The layout and sound-absorbing materials make the space surprisingly quiet, despite the open spaces and lack of individual offices, says Schechter. Even the customer service area is quiet, even though the employees spend much of their time on the phone. Conference rooms and smaller “huddle rooms” are always available for small meetings or one-on-one conversations, she notes.

“It’s been a really great environment to work in,” says Schechter.

DOING SOCIAL GOOD

A motto at Saint-Gobain and CertainTeed is: “We do well by doing good.”

Creating sustainable products using energy-efficient processes is central to the organization’s present and future. “It’s just the right thing to do,” says Crowe. “It’s doing what we can as a company to be mindful of the impact we’re having on the environment.”

Crowe is following the lead set by de Chalendar, who advocates environmental protection, particularly through reducing carbon emissions. One of de Chalendar’s goals for the global Saint-Gobain organization is to be “the reference in sustainable habitat,” says Crowe. He’s also influenced by his own family. “My two millennial children, who are very green and recycle everything, have helped teach Dad. If I throw a plastic bottle in the wrong bin at home and they’re there, they’ll bark at me,” he laughs.

Global Saint-Gobain’s ambitious mandates for energy-efficient products and capital projects include a goal to reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions in service buildings by a factor of four by 2040. “I’m not sure we really know how to get there, but it touches everything we do,” Crowe says.

Specific actions to address that mandate include researching ways to manufacture things in a more sustainable fashion, particularly analyzing processes for options to reduce carbon emissions. “If your process is grossly inefficient, it’s likely you’re not going to get the project approved anymore,” says Crowe.

On another front, Saint-Gobain and CertainTeed are committed to helping build better communities through YouthBuild USA, an international program that helps low-income youth improve their communities and, in the process, their lives. Participants are trained in green building trade skills as they help build affordable housing, community centers and schools. Then they can go on to earn good incomes in the construction industry, explains Crowe. The organization works with YouthBuild in four U.S. cities with the highest concentration of Saint-Gobain and CertainTeed plants, including Philadelphia.

The partnership, established in 2010, really took off five years ago, after Crowe volunteered to visit a YouthBuild construction site with Ferrigno. Ferrigno watched Crowe bond with the kids over their mutual love of building things and then return to the foundation’s executive committee to urge everyone to get involved with the group.

Interacting with the YouthBuild participants played to Crowe’s strengths in making personal connections. “He’s a kitchen table talker, not a dining room table talker,” says Ferrigno.

On a different level, Crowe builds relationships with an eye on the big picture. “He spends so much time finding the right type of people and putting them in positions to connect with other types of people in order to affect change. I think that’s really smart, especially in a company of scientists and engineers, to find people with different points of view,” Ferrigno explains.

Crowe is also adept at making other kinds of connections outside the organization, which helped smooth the way for the North American businesses’ celebration of Saint-Gobain’s 350th anniversary in 2015. Saint-Gobain promoted both its history and future in a yearlong, worldwide tour, traveling to its locations in Shanghai, China; São Paulo, Brazil; Philadelphia; and concluding in Paris.

The Philly stop featured a creative exhibit called Future Sensations, a series of cube-shaped pavilions that told the company’s story. It was situated at The Oval on Benjamin Franklin Parkway, showcasing the North American businesses’ construction materials innovation and expertise, and was viewed by 140,000 people over eight days, says Ferrigno. But it almost didn’t happen at that iconic location between City Hall and the Art Museum. Disputes initially arose with both Saint-Gobain representatives from Paris and with Philadelphia officials, who preferred other spots in the city. Crowe met with city parks and recreation officials himself to make his vision of the celebration happen in his chosen location, notes Ferrigno. Crowe also took the opportunity to arrange a meeting between then-Mayor Michael Nutter and de Chalendar when Nutter was next in Paris, he adds, including a tour of the Hall of Mirrors that started the whole Saint-Gobain story.

LEADING AND LISTENING

Crowe has said that “when he comes into a new role, he wants to leave the place better than it was when he arrived,” says Schechter. “I think that’s definitely a driving philosophy that he has in trying to improve our overall businesses. … He gives us the flexibility and opportunity to run our businesses, and he’s available when we need him.”

Crowe believes it’s best to let managers do their jobs. “I’m not a micromanager, and if you want to empower and trust people — your direct reports — you’ve got to have a good team, and I think good people don’t want to be over-managed,” he says.

People want to know what their priorities are, get support when they need it and then be allowed to do their jobs. “I’m always here to help, but I’m not looking over their shoulders every day, and I don’t do well with bosses that are like that either,” Crowe adds.

Crowe prefers to let his people take the credit for the organization’s triumphs, and attributes much of his own success as a leader and an innovator to recruiting the right talent, building relationships and listening to what employees and customers have to say. However, Crowe has one piece of advice that stands out — “sprinkle in a couple of crazy people, too.”

Many of the North American organization’s engineers come from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A few years ago, CertainTeed hired someone from the Rhode Island School of Design who doesn’t think like everyone else thinks, but has a way of putting ideas together in new ways. “It’s like throwing this kind of crazy wrench into our process,” says Crowe.

This employee has had a profound impact on the company’s approach to things. The takeaway, Crowe explains, is “don’t just hire cookie-cutter people, sprinkle in some craziness and people who really bring different viewpoints.”

Innovators find new ideas by turning information upside down, looking at it backwards and in ways other people don’t, he says. “I think all companies need those people.” CEO

Samantha Drake is a freelance writer based in Lansdowne, PA. Contact us at editorial@smartceo.com.

CEO OF THE YEAR

Each year, SmartCEO magazine names a CEO of the Year. In selecting its CEO of the Year, SmartCEO looks for entrepreneurs who are true leaders among their peers. They have grown profits and community popularity, but they also have proven track records of innovation and bringing value to the marketplace. They lead more than just companies; they lead industries in new directions.

Why John Crowe?

As a noted “company man,” John Crowe has spent more than 25 years serving Saint-Gobain and CertainTeed Corporations in a multitude of roles before earning the spot as president and CEO — a testament to his loyalty and commitment. He possesses a true belief in the vision and mission of the 351-year-old building materials leader and remains one of the leading proponents of its history of innovation, sustainability and stewardship. Like Saint-Gobain’s ability to stand the test of time, Crowe is able to see beyond himself to drive true value in the marketplace, empower those he leads to do the same, and take the necessary risks to drive the industry forward. Saint-Gobain’s new, state-of-the-art North American headquarters in Malvern, PA, are a testament to that commitment — showcasing more than 50 of the company’s own products and earning not only industry accolades but an LEED Platinum designation from the Green Building Council. For these impressive achievements and more, SmartCEO honors him as our 2016 Philadelphia CEO of the Year.

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AN AMERICAN VERSAILLES

Saint-Gobain and CertainTeed Corporations’ new U.S. headquarters debuted in 2015, amid the parent company’s 350th anniversary celebrations. The building opened officially on Oct. 15 — the date of Saint-Gobain’s founding 350 years ago to make glass for Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors.

Architects and builders transformed Versailles, once nothing more than a hunting lodge, using a variety of French-made materials; King Louis XIV wanted the palace to be a showcase of French excellence. Likewise, Saint-Gobain and CertainTeed’s “Living Laboratory” headquarters is meant to show off the company’s innovations in sustainability.

In July, the Living Laboratory received LEED Platinum certification for both the commercial interiors and the core and shell, as established by the U.S. Green Building Council. “We’re the only commercial building in the state of Pennsylvania that has both interior and exterior LEED platinum certification,” says John Crowe, president and CEO of Saint-Gobain and CertainTeed Corporations. More than 14,000 people have visited the headquarters since its opening. Saint-Gobain now offers accredited tours to industry professionals to show how the building achieved its certifications.

Instead of razing the dilapidated existing two buildings at the site, which had sat empty since 2008, the company stripped the buildings to the cement floors and steel structure, and then connected them to form one 277,000-square-foot building, explains Crowe. Materials from the old buildings were recycled where possible. The use of more than 50 Saint-Gobain/CertainTeed products has created a testing ground for researchers to measure the benefits of those products in a real workplace, in terms of improved air quality, moisture management, acoustics, energy efficiency, thermal management and ergonomics.

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Here are ways in which the Living Laboratory embodies CertainTeed and Saint-Gobain’s sustainability vision:

Materials. Materials used included LEED-verified recycled content, locally manufactured materials and Forest Stewardship Council-certified wood.

Energy. Electronically tintable dynamic glazing SageGlass helps provide significant energy savings. Daylight sensors are located along the perimeter of the building to measure incoming daylight levels and modulate the glass transmittance according to interior needs. SageGlass also reduces uncomfortable glare and solar heat gain.

Indoor air quality. Low volatile organic compound (VOC)-emitting building materials, carpeting and furniture are used to provide a safe, healthy working environment. All paints and varnishes also have a low VOC content. A green housekeeping program uses environmentally friendly cleaning materials and equipment that also help sustain a high level of interior air quality.

Water efficiency. Select landscape areas are irrigated by a system that uses harvested rainwater, collected from a 7,000-square-foot roof area and stored in a 25,000-gallon cistern onsite. A stormwater management plan includes an underground detention system, infiltration trench and four rain gardens to infiltrate stormwater on-site and inhibit impact to local waterways.

Ecology. More than 30 percent of the property features native plantings, and an existing pond was restored to deter geese and reduce a potent source of pollution.

Source: Saint-Gobain/CertainTeed Corporations

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